Some gaming groups actually do a formal social contract, wherein they explicitly set some of the expectations and rules for the gaming group. What items should a group considering doing a social contract of their own think about including?
While I won't speak on whether doing so is a good idea or not... some items I would suggest including... in no particular order:
The value of a formal contract is recording agreements among all participants to ensure everyone understands what is expected. Obviously, a long written contract will make most players' eyes glaze over and kill the fun. Maybe just have a discussion about some things. If you have a widely fluctuating set of players coming and going, a written contract can help new players assimilate quickly.
A formal social contract covers all details of play. Specifically, it is an agreement to play a certain game, at a certain time and place, with certain people, in a certain way. In other words: what, when, where, who, why, and how.
Also take a look at Chris Chinn's Same Page Tool.
Make sure to set lines and veils, as the story gaming crowd often calls it. Everyone, including the DM, should set these--lines are things that no one can do in the game. Some people may be very uncomfortable with the idea of rape, while others can incorporate it into a game and use it to advance an intense story. Veils, on the other hand, are things you don't need to go into deep detail on. It may be fine to do a torture scene in your game, but players agree that they don't need to go into excruciating detail on what happens--that just casually mentioning it, letting it hide mostly behind that veil, is the best idea.
It's not the only component, but it helps ensure that you've talked over some of the important issues that might come up in the game, and makes it less likely that you'll step on other players' toes.
In addition to Wolf's fine list we almost always include an agreement on Verisimilitude and expectations of genre, mood and theme. This borders on other material but we've found, especially in more hard to grasp concept games that laying out some group expectations and having a dialogue goes a long way to making sure there are no hard feelings or disagreements down the line. Just by having the conversation and documenting it it can help when issues come up that some at the table feel are not true to the shared world.
Logistics We play every week, at Jeremiah’s house.
Dispute All difficulties are solved via consensus
In the tradition of the contemporary realist school of spy novels, especially John le Carré’s work, with special attention to the Karla trilogy and more recent novels like Absolute Friends. Depending on player direction the game may draw inspiration from Tim Power’s Declare. The game will start with 1970s Cold War, move forward through the 80s, the end of the Cold War 90s and the modern day.
The spy as detective and scholar meet the politics of espionage.
Through the course of this game one of the goals will be to develop a coherent and richly symbolic world to carry a major part of the thematic burden, while not overshadowing action and character.
For example, John Le Carre in his Cold War era novels depicts a Britain of moribund tendencies which are powerfully expressed through images of darkness, decrepitude, emptiness and coldness. His description reveals the rest of Western Europe to be in much the same condition, although at times a cold, efficient sterility has replaced decay. In both cases descriptive passages are replete with a sense of loss or absence that points to the superiority of the past. Satisfactory alternatives to a Western Europe “grown old and cold and weary” are not easily found. American landscapes appear to be bright and spacious but are in reality meretricious, vulgar and militarist; Eastern European communist landscapes are even colder and darker than those of Western Europe and fail to make the faintest gesture towards something new.
Le Carre does this through the careful repetition of certain set characteristics.
One of the intents in roleplaying over four decades is to attempt to give a temporal as well as spatial dimension to the campaign. Mode
In the vein of espionage fiction, with its roots in novels by Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, takes the spy -- an assumer of false identities and a trader in information, compelled by circumstances to betray his own values -- as an exemplar of the modern man or woman: just like us, only more so. As the world of espionage is one forever caught in a world of appearances and dense, undiscerned realities, an espionage game and the wainscot will have much in common; expect this relationship to be explored. Memory, personal and institutional, will play a key role in this game and will be reflected in the eventual mechanics.
A spy is above all a man of politics . . . He must have the breadth of thought of a strategist, and meticulous powers of observation. Espionage is a continuous and demanding labor which never ceases. – John Le Carré, “To Russia, with Greetings” (1966)
Professional spies are mysterious, unpredictable, omnipotent, admirable yet criminal. Are they honorable patriots who compromise themselves for a just cause? Or are they liars, thieves, “a procession of vain fools, traitors” who play on the weaknesses of others to gain information?
Emphasis will be placed on the institution, and the individuals place in relationship to it.
While John le Carré’s plots are famous for their labyrinthine convolutions, they are perhaps not so well known for an even more striking trait. The master key to all of his spy novels is a question which doubles as a vital clue to their realism: “What has to happen before something happens?” Le Carré’s answer is historical research, a resort to the archives. It is also what he means by secret intelligence.
By starting in the seventies and moving forward to the modern day one of the goals of this game will be view the cold war as passing into history. To approach the common memory of it--and, more to the point, how individuals have have been marked by it.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy opens ironically with “the truth is,” whereas the novel contradicts this certainty by concluding that it was “after all, a dream.” The novel turns on the divergence of dream, folklore, and prosaic fact. Despite their contingency, dreams and myths (illusions) are essential, but without awareness of their social construction they can be dangerous. Smiley’s disillusionment leads to painful self-awareness. The first half of the game could very easily shadow this pathway to self-awareness.
Scale This game shall be played in the realm of geopolitics. The structural road map of game will be drawn by geography. The locus of action will be constantly changing, stretched out to represent the entire globe.
Austerity: This campaign is fairly severe as the characters will operate in the midst of an intelligence service. More importantly this game shall play up the moral and psychological, and yes the spiritual, consequences of the work the characters undertake.
Veils: Sexual content and violence are behind the veil. They happen, they will be involve in plots, we don’t describe them in detail. We respect people's requests to stop.
For another game we included language like this: